THE WHITE HOUSE ISN’T ENOUGH
POST FROM GEORGE
All Democratic eyes are focused on the presidential primaries and on which of the twenty-some-odd candidates is their favorite. They focus on one policy promise after the next looking for those they like best. Tax reform that helps the lower and middle classes, closes the wealth gap, and reduces our soaring national debt. Medicare for All that makes health care a right and affordable. Tuition-free college education. Forgiveness of the massive burden of education debt. Investment in infrastructure. Legislation that puts an end to gerrymandering. And on and on, including myriad variants on each issue.
But such issues should not be the central focus of Democrats.
Their central focus must be on picking up three seats in the Senate. Without this, promises on any and all of the above policies are nothing but hot air. No legislation on them will get through the Senate. Quite likely none will ever get a floor vote. Standing in the way is Mitch McConnell who proudly declared “If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate, think of me as the grim reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass. I guarantee you that if I’m the last man standing and I’m still the majority leader, it ain’t happening. I can promise you.”
Not only will McConnell ensure that “None of that stuff is going to pass,” but he similarly will block judicial appointments. Justice Ginsberg provides the clearest example. It is rather certain that she will leave the Supreme Court soon after 2020. Do you really think that McConnell will allow a liberal to take her place? This is the same Mitch McConnell who for better than a year blocked the appointment of moderate Merrick Garland, saving the open seat for the GOP. When Justice Ginsberg retires or passes on, McConnell will be very happy to live with a Supreme Court of eight Justices. A five-three conservative-liberal split is much more to his liking than a five-four split. The only nominee that McConnell will accept, from whichever Democrat is elected, is a conservative far enough to the right to be to his liking. All liberal nominees to federal district or appellate benches will suffer the same fate.
Without a majority in the Senate, the core Democratic agenda that requires legislation or appointment is Dead-On-Arrival. A Democratic President is left with nothing but executive orders. He or she can use them to undo executive orders issued or cancelled by Trump. But that’s about as far as it goes. If he or she in attempts to legislate by executive order as Trump has been doing, he or she will end up in the same constant court battles as Trump and will look like one more authoritarian president, albeit of a different brand.
Democrats must focus on picking up a minimum of three seats in the Senate. How do they do that? By beating Trump by the widest margin possible.
There must be a coattail effect that leads centrist and center-right voters in red states to vote not just for the Democrat running for president but also to vote down-ballot for the Democratic Senate candidates.
In 2020, 12 Democratic and 22 Republican seats are up for re-election and it cannot be assumed that the Democrat will prevail in all 12 of the elections for seats currently held by Democrats. Senator Doug Jones, for example, may face an impossible up-hill battle in Alabama unless Roy Moore wins the Republican primary. Similarly, with Cory Booker running for President, his seat in New Jersey isn’t safe despite the fact that New Jersey passed a law – nicknamed Cory Booker’s Law – that allows someone to run simultaneously for the White House and for Congress.
The most vulnerable Republicans may be Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado. Hillary Clinton carried both states in 2016. After these two, it is tough going. Assuming that Doug Jones loses in Alabama and Democrats win in Maine and Colorado, Democrats will have to unseat at least two from the following – three or four to be safe.
Lamar Alexander (Tennessee)
Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia)
Bill Cassidy (Louisiana)
John Cornyn (Texas)
Tom Cotton (Arkansas)
Steve Daines (Montana)
Mike Enzi (Wyoming)
Joni Ernst (Iowa)
Lindsey Graham (South Carolina)
Cindy Hyde-Smith (Mississippi)
James Inhofe (Oklahoma)
Nominee-to-be-decided (Arizona) – Senator John Kyle is not running for re-election
Mitch McConnell (Kentucky)
David Perdue (Georgia)
Jim Risch (Idaho)
Pat Roberts (Kansas)
Mike Rounds (South Dakota)
Ben Sasse (Nebraska)
Dan Sullivan (Alaska)
Thom Tillis (North Carolina)
The GOP can do the Democrats three favors. The first two are nominating Roy Moore in Alabama and Kris Kobach in Kansas. That could make these two deep red states at least competitive.
The third may already be in play; namely, the GOP’s efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act via their lawsuit now before the courts. Should it succeed, it would lead to a collapse of the ACA and the GOP has no back-up plan in waiting. They are in no better position today than in 2016 when McCain, Collins and Murkowski killed their previous effort. McConnell and others in the GOP leadership admit that there will be scant hope of compromise legislation with the Democratic House in the heat of the 2020 elections. The Democrats’ success in the 2018 House elections was largely based on health care policy. If the GOP’s dream of ending Obamacare comes true, it could create another blue wave in 2020. You would think that the GOP would be aware of the old adage: Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.
Democrats also have their eyes fixed on the wrong polling numbers. It is not how Democrat primary candidates rank against each other that matters. It is the margin by which they beat Trump head-to-head. Two recent polls that followed the Democratic debate and its aftermath speak to this – the Washington Post/ABC News poll and the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The WAPO/ABC poll had Biden beating Trump by 10 points – 53% to 43%. Harris led Trump 48% to 46%, Sanders edged him out 49% to 48%, and Trump tied Warren at 48% and Buttigieg at 47%.
The NBC/WSJ poll shows Biden beating Trump by nine points — 51% to 42%. Sanders led Trump 50% to 43% and Warren by 48% to 43%. Harris at 44% was in a statistical tie with Trump at 45%. Trump won over all the remaining candidates, beating most very comfortably.
Taken together these polls appear to indicate that Biden-Harris is the strongest ticket that the Democrats can run. It is more appealing than two old white guys in a Biden-Sanders ticket, and it is unlikely that Biden would pick Warren even if she is willing to play second fiddle in an administration whose policies are apart from hers.
Faced with the challenges – or rather imperatives – of defeating Trump and capturing the Senate, Democratic voters and candidates are doing two things that are badly self-defeating.
Democratic voters, dreaming of policy promises that will never get past McConnell, are donating money to candidates who will not beat Trump and, even if such a candidate did squeak past him, would not have the coattails to carry the Senate. These donations are wasted money. They should be made to those who can beat Trump by a wide margin or saved for the general election. Meanwhile, Trump is building a massive war chest that he does not have to spend in primaries.
The folly of the Democratic candidates is best encapsulated in the famous quote from Lyndon Johnson: “You know the difference between cannibals and liberals? Cannibals eat only their enemies.”
The last thing that the Democratic candidates should be doing is attacking each other. The priorities in this election are getting rid of Trump and taking the Senate. By attacking each other they are pasting negatives on each other that will persist into the presidential election, and they are testing negative messages for use by Trump and his acolytes.
They should be attacking Trump and pasting negatives on him and his allies. But in going after Trump, the Democrats must understand that Trump is not fighting a policy battle. He has no policies. He is waging culture war that pits one group of Americans against another. He sees the key to his win in 2016 as the fruit of a divide and conquer strategy.
His blatantly racist tweets about the four Democratic Congresswomen on which he doubled down in a press conference makes it clear that he again will base his campaign on culture war. With little grasp of or interest in policy, Trump doesn’t take a stance on whether Medicaid expansion is good or bad policy. Openly and in dog whistles he uses it to arouse his base as an example of one more giveaway of their money to deadbeats and others who don’t deserve it. Similarly, his border wall is not national security policy. It is a symbol around which racists and xenophobes can coalesce and find support – “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Although Democratic contenders should show how their ideas lead to a better future, they better grasp that this is a culture war and target Trump on it.
In addition, the Democratic candidates should be explaining how they will get legislation passed in a McConnell-dominated Senate and what compromises they would make to do so. And most importantly, telling us why centrist and center-right voters will vote for them in the numbers needed to carry the Senate.
This election will be won in the center. Trump’s right-wing supporters will remain loyal to him, and progressives and liberals, being Never-Trumpers, will vote for the Democrat. These two groups are of roughly equivalent size and neither is large enough to carry its candidate to victory. Trump was elected in 2016 primarily because he captured a large swath of the center – enough to tip the scales in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. To take the Senate, the Democrats need the candidate who will create coattails in Senate races by winning the center by the widest possible margin, including center-right voters disillusioned by Trump and those in the Senate who support him.
There is yet one more reason for the necessity of winning the center. Congressional redistricting follows the 2020 Census. It is crucial that the Democrats capture as many governorships and state legislatures as possible to block GOP gerrymandering. Again, this is both and imperative and a major challenge. Twenty-seven of the 50 governors are Republicans and the GOP controls 61 state legislative chambers to the Democrats 37.
There is a tremendous amount at stake in the 2020 election. Change is essential but in a democracy change evolves. One must lead, coax and educate over time; one cannot abruptly drag people into a profoundly different future.
I was just watching the news and despairing, when out of The Left Corner comes a missive of common sense and strategy. I am not a political pundit or strategist, but I don’t think Elizabeth Warren wants to be Vice President for anyone. Biden-Harris might do well and I think Harris might agree to be vice president if it would mean beating Trump. I find Buttigieg impressive – cerebral, independent, focused and I have never heard him dodge a question, but I doubt he could win. Some folks say the large number of candidates mean more discussion and more viewpoints and that that is a good thing. I think it is dispersing energy better used to get behind a candidate early enough to build momentum. I think this is one of those moments in history when we who hate and fear everything Trump represents should be working like ants in a hot frying pan to get him out of office by not quibbling and throwing everything in to achieve a Democrat’s win. My intensity is not shared by many of the people I meet and chat with when out and about in the world. The people I talk to working behind pharmacy counters, in grocery stores and other places seem to have little knowledge of current events, little if any interest in the news of the day and no sense of this critical moment in the arc of history. “Socialism” scares them to death but they seem not to know what it actually is or means. “Capitalism” they get because it means money and jobs but they don’t understand its voracious extraction from them and from the planet. The assumption seems to be that “everything will be okay”, that life will go on as usual automatically, with or without their vote and participation. This is a blue collar town and my impression may be skewed but I think we stand a good chance of losing to Trump in 2020. I need to hang out more often in The Left Corner. Great article, Charles. Thank you!
For some reason, maybe my own revulsion to Trump, I feel like he is eminently “beatable.” In essence, we lost the presidency by only 70,000 votes in three counties in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. See the paragraph below from Wikipedia.
“Data scientist Hamdan Azhar noted the paradoxes of the 2016 outcome, saying that “chief among them [was] the discrepancy between the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won by 2.8 million votes, and the electoral college, where Trump won 304-227”. He said Trump outperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 results, while Clinton only just matched Barack Obama’s 2012 totals. Hamdan also said Trump was “the highest vote earner of any Republican candidate ever,” exceeding George W. Bush’s 62.04 million votes in 2004, though neither reached Clinton’s 65.9 million, nor Obama’s 69.5 million votes in 2008, the overall record. He concluded, with help from The Cook Political Report, that the election hinged not on Clinton’s large 2.8 million overall vote margin over Trump, but rather on about 78,000 votes from only three counties in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan (by the same logic, Obama won in 2012 due to three counties in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania).
That margin in 2016 “can” be destroyed by a centrist candidate like Biden. I think you are right, a Biden/Harris ticket would be a good fit. BUT, I think Biden may be very hesitant to tap Harris because of her ambush in the first debate. Stacy Abrams might fit the bill.
Thanks for reading the blog and responding. The author of this was my friend, George. He and I did a lot of blogging in 2016, and we will become more active as the election becomes closer.